Friday, March 8, 2019

Sampling the She-Wolf and the Spinster

Front cover of the book "Sampler" that shows the red stitching usually associated with quilting
Today is International Women's Day, which marks a great opportunity to highlight some of the exceptional women authors and artists represented in our vast collections. One fascinating work is Sampler (2007), a compilation of 200 poems written by the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, each of which is accompanied by a print by the contemporary artist Kiki Smith. Sampler, which was produced by the independent art-house publisher Arion Press, offers a uniquely valuable entry point into a discussion of the dynamic relationship between womanhood and art-making over the course of the last two hundred-plus years.

Dickinson (1830-1866) may well be one of the most well-known literary voices, male or female, in American history—but this was not case in her own day. A recluse and "spinster" by her late-twenties, Dickinson hardly published any of her poetry during her lifetime, choosing instead to circulate it privately among her friends and family. And while she may not be an overtly “feminist” writer in the way we might categorize one today, she has often been championed by feminist critics as a poet who opted out of the traditional social expectations placed on nineteenth-century women.

Several of Dickinson's poems included in Sampler allude, rather subversively, to the restrictions placed on women during her day. Take "I'm Wife—I've finished that":

I'm "wife"—I've finished that—
That other state.
I'm Czar—I'm "woman" now—
It's safer so.

How odd the girl's life looks
Behind this soft eclipse.
I think that earth feels so
To folks in heaven, now.

This being comfort—then
That other kind was pain.
But why compare?
I'm "wife"! Stop there!

Here we can see Dickinson grappling with her feminine self-identity: the difference between being a woman and a wife, as well as the difference between men and women. A man can be a Czar, but
Text of "Stop There!" from "Sampler," page 46
woman only a wife. "Stop There!"

Kiki Smith's (b. 1954) visual accompaniment to Sampler brings the themes of feminine self-identity and women’s work only further to the fore. The book's cover makes this immediately apparent, with "Sampler" and Dickinson and Smith's names cross-stitched across it in maroon embroidery thread. In fact, making "samplers"—pieces of cloth with embroidered or cross-stitched pictorial scenes or phrases—was a common pastime for American women in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was a way to showcase their aptitude for domestic skills. Throughout the book, Smith continues to play with the distinctly feminizing aesthetic of needlework. Each of her prints is composed of small red hatch lines, which are meant to mimic the effect of cross-stitching, and were directly inspired by historic textile collections held in major American art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Drawing of Emily Dickinson from "Sample"
Smith is a multidisciplinary artist well-known for her feminist subject matter, and her art often explores the cultural and social role of women through representations of the female body. And although Smith is rarely so subtle in her work (the image of the feral she-wolf plays a reoccurring role in her art), she is in many ways a perfect companion for the reserved New England poet. Like Dickinson, Smith too is preoccupied with how women operate within and outside of social expectations and cultural boundaries and Smith’s contributions to this wonderful compilation reaffirms the continued relevancy of Dickinson's poetry especially with respect to the personal and lived experiences of women.

You can view Sampler by asking for Presses A712dick at the reference desk.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Banning Books

Title page for "The Squire's Recipes." On Monday, we welcomed Professor Peggy Baum's Writing 5 class, titled "Rights of Writers." Peggy wanted her students to engage with issues that challenge journalists, so we found some great items in the collection that engage with the issue of censorship. One of them was a book titled Mother Goose Rhymes, and across the cover was blazoned the word "CENSORED." The volume was filled with innocent rhymes made dirty by the blacking out of certain verbs, making the point that the mere act of censorship can cause innocuous words to contain dark import. We thought that this would be a great subject for a blog post but, when we did a quick search online, we found that the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine had scooped us seven years ago.

Preface to "The Squire's Recipes" that describes the circumstances surrounding its 'discovery.'However, their article set us on a new tack. We discovered that the book was one of many written by Kendall Banning, a member of the class of 1902. Apparently, in addition to numerous volumes of prose and poetry, Banning had also written a "fake 1784 cookbook"! Our curiosity piqued, we mentioned the oddity to Jaime Eeg '18, the Edward Connery Lathem '51 Special Collections Fellow. As it happened, she was in the midst of planning an exhibit on cookbooks, set to open in April 2019. Eeg plucked the very volume from her cart of treasures, handed it to us, and we began to read.

Recipe for "The Dartmouth Drachm."As a Christmas prank in 1912, or thereabouts, friends of Banning were gifted a little book, titled The Squire's Recipes, that appeared to be a collection of mixed drink recipes collated by Banning's great-grandfather Calvin Banning in 1784. Banning claimed that he had discovered the pamphlet in his grandmother's attic in Connecticut, and soon the secret was out. Libraries all over the nation asked for copies, newspapers announced the discovery of a long-lost New England early printed text, and prohibitionists foamed at the mouth. Soon, after his great-grandfather's reputation began to be besmirched, Kendall Banning came clean and confessed that the ancient tome was actually of his own making. As a loyal son of Dartmouth, he had included a recipe for a drink called 'The Dartmouth Drachm.' He warns that, "because of its potency, it should be repeated cautiously."

To see a 1912 reprint of the original book, come to Rauner and ask for Alumni B227sq. To read some innocent nursery rhymes made dirty, ask for Alumni B227mo.